ALTO MOLOCUE, MOZAMBIQUE -- A shirtless young man trumpeted on a huge black horn as he led 50 men up a hilly dirt path through fields of corn and sorghum toward a freshly dug open grave. As the assembly of ragged refugees, bodyguards and soldiers shifted uneasily in a semi-circle, a bonfire was set and the man was buried alive. Four minutes later, he emerged from under a thick layer of loose dirt and extinguished the blaze with his bare hands and feet.
It was late June and Manuel Antonio, a traditional healer, was conducting one of his final ceremonies before saying goodbye to the group. Just three months before he had arrived in the little mountain town of Alto Molocue like a young messiah from the north, marching with his warriors down the dusty main street and declaring he had a divine mission to rid Mozambique of war.
In recent months, Antonio's band of warriors has been of remarkable assistance to government troops locked in a civil war with rebels of the Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo), which has cost up to 500,000 civilian lives, according to some United Nations estimates.
Antonio's men have confronted the rebels with a force that is far stronger than Soviet-made AK-47 assault rifles or mortars. With his healing powers, Antonio tapped into the deep rural beliefs of the Alto Molocue townspeople and gathered an unusual group of followers to rid the area of rebel bases.
From March to June, the 28-year-old Antonio held ceremonies in packed refugee camps surrounding the town center. He used razor blades and ashes of a secret bush plant to vaccinate followers against modern weapons of war. It took Antonio just a few weeks to mold the ill-trained local militia into a 400-man battalion called the Naprama, or "irresistible force."
The Naprama's success story began in late March. Wielding spears and machetes and rattling tin cans as they advanced on rebel-held terrotories, the Naprama troops swept across this fertile district on the high plateau of Zambezia province, 1,000 miles north of the capital Maputo. They overran areas where President Joaquim Chissano's Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) army had failed to dislodge the Renamo units.
When Naprama returned thousands of refugees to Alto Molocue and nearby areas controlled by Chissano's Frelimo troops, word spread quickly that rebel machine guns and mortars were useless against anyone vaccinated by Antonio.
In a recent interview, Antonio said Jesus Christ was responsible for his powers. Antonio described how he had died of measles, spent six days in a grave, was revived and told by God to free people being held behind Renamo lines.
The local militia in Alto Molocue asked Antonio to help train their men on the strength of his reputation earned last year when he helped government forces capture three Renamo bases near his hometown of Nampula.
"I do not have much else to do than to prepare medicines for the poor, for the people who have no power," Antonio said. "Wherever they call me in Mozambique I will go."
Some residents remember a darker side to the story of Naprama in Alto Molocue. When the Naprama occupied one of the former rebel zones, the civilians living there complained of harsh treatment, although no witnesses could say whether it was inflicted by Antonio's men or by the government troops who followed. Houses were burned and the troops took the residents, some voluntarily, others forcibly, to Alto Molocue, according to refugees.
However judged by those he claims to have saved, Antonio's cooperation with the Frelimo army is the latest sign of a slow, yet pivotal change in the government's attitude toward chiefs, mediums and healers who make up the traditional political structure in rural Mozambique.
After leading Mozambique to independence from Portugal in 1975, the one-party Frelimo government demonstrated hostility toward the local political and religious authorities, sparking anger in the countryside.
Evidence suggests that some of Frelimo's hostility toward local leaders has not faded. In March, an army unit from Alto Molocue abducted an influential pro-Renamo chief named Soares from his home at night and killed him at the military barracks, according to refugees, a government official and an army source.
Testimony from refugees and rural traders, meanwhile, suggests that rebel relations with civilians, mediated through cooperative chiefs called "mambos," are deteriorating.
"The mambos are getting tired of always demanding more food from the people," said Alberto Palume Cortinho, 19, who regularly travels across a 100-mile route through rebel-held territory into the highlands to trade goods. "More and more chiefs are presenting themselves to the government because their people have run out of food."